Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Past and Future of Iraq

After eight years of blood and sweat, and many destroyed hopes and lives, the United States has finally departed Iraq. It will take years before we can finally determine whether America's intervention in Iraq was successful. In the meantime, in this blog post, I'd like to retrace some of the important steps in the war and begin to explore some the war's short-term regional implications.

George W. Bush hoped that by destroying the Hussein regime in Iraq, he could build a more cooperative, peaceful, and democratic regime in Iraq, while also protecting U.S. civilians from the infamous "Weapons of Mass Destruction."

Ahmad Chalabi


Beyond the entire fiasco of the "Weapons of Mass Destruction," Bush had a long-term strategic goal of changing Iraq to a stable, functioning democracy. Bush and his neoconservative advisers believed that democratizing Iraq might be a way to end the tangled web of several Middle East problems once and for all.

Their belief was based on several arguments: (1) Democracy is a superior form of government. Free, fair, and open elections ensure that leaders are accountable to the masses. Democratic institutions help to ensure the protection of human rights. Democracies tend not to fight each other. So the more democracies in the Middle East, the better it is for regional and world peace and stability. (2) Because people were already tired of a very brutal dictatorship, Iraq would be the easiest state to transform to a democracy. And this experiment in regime change would probably be a relatively low-cost effort, funded mostly by Iraqi oil exports. (4) Once democracy takes hold in Iraq, demonstrating to the Muslim world the compatibility of Islam with key democratic ideas and institutions, it would spread to other Middle Eastern countries, creating an ever larger zone of democracy in a region that's been a hotbed of repressive authoritarian rule. (5) A democratic Middle East would go some way toward diffusing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After all, for decades, Arab dictators had been playing the Israel card as a way to divert people from their incompetence in running their nation, which only inflamed anti-Israeli sentiment and hostilities in the region. By opening up Middle Eastern politics, leaders would have to focus less on propaganda and more on getting things done for their constituents.

Of course, all of those rosy plans quickly blew up, thanks to several major factors, notably Iran, which didn't like the idea of an American military base next door in Iraq.

Strategically, a weak Iraq would benefit Iran: it could expand its power to the west, as it no longer faced an existential threat from a strong Iraq, which Iran believed to be backed by the monarchs in the Middle East.

Iran began to engage in Iraqi domestic politics, such as by sheltering and funding Moktada al-Sadr, the militant anti-American Shiite Cleric. 

At the same time, thanks to U.S. Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld's miscalculation of sending just enough troops to topple Hussein but not enough to police the country, Iraq then descended into chaos. It didn't help that Iraq, with American council, imposed strict de-Baathism, a policy of getting rid of many presumed supporters of Saddam Hussein from all parts of the government and state bureaucracy. This policy mostly targeted the Sunnis and created a huge backlash. In effect, this move radicalized the Sunni population and gave al-Qaeda the opportunity to enter the scene more forcefully.


Bush mistakenly believed that Saddam was sheltering al-Qaeda. The ironic part, however, is that the disorder in Iraq allowed al-Qaeda to jump into the fray, as the local Sunni militias sought to gain outside support to help the "resistance."

In the end, al-Qaeda's violence and extremism only decimated its support inside Iraq, even among the Sunnis. In fact, some Sunnis even saw the United States as the lesser of two evils, leading to the formation of Awakening Council, the Sunni militias that assisted the United States in fighting al-Qaeda.


Another major element of the war was George Bush's so-called surge, which added significant numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq. This was crucial, for two reasons: (1) it boosted the security of Iraq and (2) and put al-Qaeda on defensive. The surge debunked al-Qaeda's operating logic, that the more the organization violently struck American forces and installations, the more likely the U.S. would withdraw due to rising casualties and deaths.


Bush's military surge allowed the situation to stabilize. Still, the humpty dumpty had fallen and all the king's horses and men could not put him back again and Iraq remained a troublespot. Once Barack Obama came into office, he essentially maintained Bush's ideas about and policies toward Iraq. But when it came time to proceed with a planned drawdown of American forces, Obama had no stomach to keep any troops in Iraq to continue their training and advisory duties. With election season already here, it's possible he caved into pressure from his liberal backers and supporters. But another sticking point was Iraq's refusal to grant American forces immunity from alleged crimes, making them susceptible to arrest and prosecution from any police and justice officials harboring anti-American views.

What's the prognosis for Iraq?

First, it is still bad. The withdrawal of American troops was a political decision, while the situation on the ground, regardless of all the rosy prediction, remained unstable. This will become worse as Prime Minister al-Maliki had sidelined and discriminated the Sunnis and former Baathists. America's presence in Iraq provided a punching bag, and at the same time, a buffer to these people. Expect things to blow up should al-Maliki overreach in his political designs.

Second, Iraq will remain a proxy battleground for Iran. Even though many Shiites in Iraq have soured on Iran, many, including Moktada al-Sadr, remain dependent on Iran as the source of their power. The fluctuation within Iran's domestic politics, notably the cold war between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could blow up and someone might use Iraq as a way to rally everyone around flag and launch an invasion. It's not improbable, especially if the Iranians believe (1) the U.S. is too weary and no longer interested in Iraq and (2) Iraq is too divided to muster an effective defense. This could be more tempting should the Assad regime in Syria, another Iran's client, collapse.

UPDATE on my first point above: Things have already started to go south, though much sooner than I anticipated. We can expect Iraq to get really hairy, should al-Maliki crack down hard on the violence and pursue widespread anti-Sunni policies (which, to a certain extent, is already happening).

North Korea: The Known and Unknown

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Kim Jong Un/Unknown photographer

Given the political and security uncertainties surrounding a post-Kim Jong Il government, there is, understandably, quite a bit of concern about North Korea. This is evident in media reporting and analysis. And it's also clear in the actions by and statements from Washington and its allies in Asia. South Korea put its military on high alert. Meantime, Team Obama has been busy communicating with key players in the region, like South Korea and Japan, to make sure everyone is on the same page--that they are all on guard and ready for any rapid changes in stability and security in Asia, yet still able to exercise much-needed restraint and caution.

At bottom, Washington is worried about the internal succession dynamics and the impact that they could have on the region. Specifically, the worry is that a paranoid North Korea will lash out militarily in an effort to showcase the country's strength and power despite the political transition. Moreover, the use of force could be a way for Kim Jong Un, the probable new leader, to demonstrate his leadership skills to North Korea's political and military elites.

Should North Korea make any provocative moves, and should other countries, such as Japan and  South Korea, in turn, respond assertively, the entire region could very quickly find itself on the brink of war. And remember, this is a region, broadly defined, with four powers (China, India, Russia, and Japan) and four nuclear powers (China, India, Russia, and North Korea). One small ill-advised move, one small miscalculation, could have disastrous consequences.

Right now, here is a reasonably good guess about what will happen in North Korea. Now that Kim Jong Il is gone, North Korea will undergo a political transition in power. Tapped by his father, the heir apparent, Kim Jong Un, known now as the "Great Successor," is expected to take the reins of power. He will try to form a coalition of support, starting with the military, which is where a considerable amount of power is vested, so as to consolidate his power. Given his age and inexperience, Kim Jong Un will likely lean on other people, probably military officials, family relatives, and his father's wise men, to guide him through the early days of his leadership.

Anything beyond the above is just wild speculation. There is so much we don't know about North Korea that it's impossible to make a good, sound estimate on the future domestic and foreign politics of the country. We know very little about Kim Jong Un, who is an unknown figure on the world stage. Even more worrisome, we don't have a good handle on what's happening inside North Korea. Indeed, the fact that we know so little about the country is one of the main stories that emerged after the death of Kim Jong Il. After all, the U.S., as well as probably every other country, didn't know about his death until North Korea's state media released the information almost a day and half after the fact.

In the end, this isn't too surprising. North Korea is an extraordinarily closed country, one that doesn't allow the outside world to get a good look at it and restrains and filters and distorts the information it releases to its public and the rest of the world. This should be a well-known observation by now. It's not as if this is the first time North Korea's opaqueness has been revealed. Just consider past information/intelligence gaps: "Pyongyang built a sprawling plant to enrich uranium that went undetected for about a year and a half until North Korean officials showed it off in late 2010 to an American nuclear scientist. The North also helped build a complete nuclear reactor in Syria without tipping off Western intelligence."

In my mind, there are lots of questions that need to be answered before we can start to think about how events will unfold going forward in North Korea. Here are some example questions.

1. Are there any existing actors or institutions that can take advantage of the power vacuum to move North Korea into a more modern and law abiding direction?

2. Is the son like dad? Is he as vengeful and vindictive? Is he as suspicious of outsiders and foreigners?Does he support bellicose policies?

3. What kind of relations does the son have with military officials? And does the military still support him now that Kim Jong Il is gone?

4. Does Kim Jong Un have any political skill or ambition? Can he build political coalitions? Can he play factions off one another? Can he maintain support from the people? Will he seek dominant power over the state, like his dad? Is willing to let other actors siphon power away from him? 

5. Specifically, who will guide Kim Jong Un during the political transition?

6. Are there any political alternatives to Kim Jong Un? And would, say, the military be willing to go against Kim Jong Il's wishes and overthrow the son and install its own preferred leader?

7. The China factor: we know China wants to preserve the status quo, which means supporting Kim Jong Un and the continuation of the Kim dynasty, if only to prevent a gathering storm on its borders. But that simple observation leaves us with a fuzzy and vague notion of how China will approach North Korea. Will China become even more active in North Korean politics? Will China urge or push North Korea to make any political or policy changes?

8. Now that Kim Jong Il is out of the picture, will South Korea's President Lee Myung Bak pull back on his so-called hardball tactics toward North Korea, perhaps offering the son an olivebrach as a way to reset North-South relations?
9. Lastly, reports surfaced Wednesday that North Korea might shift to a ruling council, or collective rule, headed by Kim Jong Un. While we know what this means in theory, it's difficult to say what it represents in practice. Is this a temporary move, a way to break the son into power gently and gradually? Or is this the first step in delimiting, if not completely undermining and eroding, the power of Kim Jong Un?

Certainly, I hope that North Korea decides to embark on a more modern and progressive and peaceful way of conducting its affairs. But in the meantime, before it's clear where North Korea is headed, I hope the U.S. and the West more generally can improve its intelligence capabilities. To be sure, a part of this requires Kim Jong Un and his military supporters to relax their grip on the state. But another part is grounded in creative and flexible thinking and strategizing--that is to say, finding novel ways to work around the impediments to information acquisition imposed by North Korea. For in the end, better intelligence would help the West glean answers to the above questions, thereby enabling it to prepare better for a variety of different political, security, and economic outcomes that may emerge over time.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Death of Kim Jong Il: Will this mark the End of the Dynasty?

According to North Korea's state media, Kim Jong Il has died of a heart attack. News sources initially stated that he died of fatigue. Although we know little about North Korea, reports have speculated for years that Kim Jong Il struggled with health problems. In fact, intelligence analysts had argued that as early as 2009, Kim Jong Il was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and a year earlier, in 2008, he reportedly suffered a stroke.

He is succeeded by Kim Jong Un, his third son, who is in his 20s and first appeared on the scene in October 2010. Having no experience at all in managing the country, Kim Jong Un will face so many challenges ahead that we could be witnessing the end of Kim Dynasty.

North Korea is living under borrowed time. Kim Jong Il had squandered so much international goodwill due to his intransigence in both the nuclear disputes and border crises, that Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo have practically given up on negotiations and instead waited for regime change. Even Beijing was reportedly losing patience with the hermit kingdom.

At the same time, however, it will be difficult to get rid of the nuclear program. Similar to Iran, the program is both the crown jewel of the hard-liner faction (the military) and tool to deter an American invasion.

It did seem that there was a growing chasm within North Korea's political elite, most evidently seen in the currency chaos back in early 2010, which cost the life of the chief of its planning and finance department. Facing impending economic collapse, the elite split between those who supported some sort of reform and those who completely opposed it . The execution of the scapegoat of the entire mess signaled Kim Jong Il's agreement for more economic openness -- at least it would stave off collapse.

Kim Jong Il could pull this off because he had the control over the North Korean political and military elites. Can the young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un, who lacks as much political capital as his father, pull off the same feat?

Moreover, unlike the succession process from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il, which culminated in 1994 and was started as early as the 1970s, the succession process this time was haphazard -- due to the supposedly reckless and odd behavior of Kim Jong Il's sons. Kim Jong Nam, the first son and originally the most likely successor, lost his father's favor after he was arrested in Japan with a fake passport, wishing to visit Tokyo Disneyland with his family.

His second son was not a good option either. Kim Jong Il thought Jong-chul was "too feminine and unfit for leadership." He also wrote a poem that would make John Lennon blush:
 "My Ideal World." It begins: "If I had my ideal world I would not allow weapons and atom bombs anymore. I would destroy all terrorists with the Hollywood star Jean-Claude Van Damme. I would make people stop taking drugs…" He wrote a somewhat chilling short story called "My Father Was a Ghost," in which his father haunts him by pretending to be a spirit.
By a process of elimination, we're left with Kim Jong Un. He is very inexperienced and will possibly be influenced by Kim Kyong Hui, his aunt, and her husband Jang Song Thaek, or General O Kuk-ryol, his father's old friend who would mostly represent the military's interests. A wild card here is General Kim Kyok-Sik, whose command of troops might be pivotal should clashes finally erupt between the political and the military sides.

His inexperience will probably hurt him when it matters most: during the power struggle that will occur soon. Whatever he decides, will be seen by one faction as detrimental, and that will not do no good in maintaining the Kim Dynasty. That said, probably few will shed any tear should the dynasty finally collapse.

Are the Palestinians an Invented People?

Newt Gingrich (Cliff Owen/AP)

Much to the dismay and consternation of the Palestinians and Palestinian sympathizers, as well as some American and Israeli political elites, Newt Gingrich recently remarked to The Jewish Channel, a U.S. cable station, that the Palestinians are an "invented people." According to Gingrich: "Remember, there was no Palestine as a state....It was part of the Ottoman Empire. We have invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people, and they had the chance to go many places. And for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and I think it’s tragic.” His point? By arguing that the idea of "the Palestinians," particularly their identity and culture and sense of nationalism, is something created out of whole cloth, without regard to reality or evidence, he's implying that the Palestinians have no real claim to land or political legitimacy in the Middle East, especially vis-a-vis the Israelis.

It's possible Gingrich believes his comments, but it's almost certain that they are part of campaign politics, an effort to cozy up to the evangelicals and the staunch pro-Israelis in the U.S. After all, he is running for the republican nomination for president, and as such it's a good move for him to show his pro-Israeli bona fides by professing skepticism about the Palestinians' role and position in the Middle East. Indeed, much to the delight of key constituents, he is signaling to the Israelis that a potential Gingrich administration would unequivocally side with them, effectively giving them diplomatic carte blanche to handle issues and problems as they please. Furthermore, Gingrich's remarks hammer home the point to republicans that he believes Obama has unfairly treated the Israelis, America's friend and ally, to the benefit of the troublemaking Palestinians, one of the alleged bad guys in the world.

Let's turn to the substance of Gingrich's quote. Specifically, is he right? Are the Palestinians an invented people? In short, yes. Daniel Larison nicely captures point: "If an identifiable Palestinian nation did not exist, say, 150 years ago, it has existed for the better part of the last century. National identities are formed through historical experience, and the last seventy or eighty years have witnessed the emergence of a distinctive Palestinian national identity."

Okay, but does this process of self-invention apply only to the Palestinians? Not exactly. Think of it this way: Which nation or ethno-religious-political group wasn't created or invented in some way? To be blunt, no group or country. This goes for actors in the Middle East, but also for those in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. After all, it's not like when man first started roaming the earth tens of thousands of years, there was a set of countries and groups already present, as if pre-ordained into existence by some higher power. These things were created by people, often for self-preservation and self-defense purposes. In fact, all countries or ERP groups are in part self-created, and in part defined in relation to some Other or Others in the world.

The only real variation in this process is when this occurs and the level of effort involved. Some countries and groups have formed their identities centuries ago, while others, like the Palestinians, only more recently. And some groups and countries simply had to declare their presence, while others have had to fight for their existence and the right to receive recognition of it.

Take Israel as an example. At bottom, what happened there was an intentional effort at self-creating a meaningful and interconnected set of cultural, religious, and political identities, ones that its supporters can rally around and use to distinguish themselves from other regional and international entities. Of course, Israel didn't come into existence as a country until the middle of the 20th century, a process that included a bloody war for independence against its neighbors. The idea of an Israeli nation was around at least a century prior to the country's inception. It was deliberately created and then propagated by Zionists who sought a homeland to keep Israelis safe and secure from violence and discrimination. And going back even further, by most accounts, people didn't start to identify themselves as Israelites until sometime during the second millennium BCE, and they did so largely to distinguish themselves from other locals, such as the Canaanites.

In the end, Gingrich is partially correct. Yes, the Palestinians are an "invented people." But so are the Israelis, Americans, and the rest of the world, though I highly doubt he would ever concede this point, at least as long as he thinks he has a political future in the Republican Party.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Regime Survival and Syria

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A few weeks ago I wrote about some of lessons that can be distilled from the case of Libya, focusing in particular on the topic of regime survival. There, I argued that Bashar al-Assad, following in the footsteps of the hardline clerics in Iran, decided to clamp down quickly and brutally on the protesters gathering in various Syrian cities. Assad "wants to cripple the protest movement and force it to negotiate on his terms. Because al-Assad hit the opposition hard from the beginning, it hasn't had a chance to metastasize in numbers or on a large-scale. Which means that the opposition is left fighting a valiant but losing conflict against a murderous state." The idea is to extinguish any revolutionary, anti-government activities, preventing them from capturing any kind of momentum that could place the government, as well as the entire regime (or political system), in jeopardy. It's a matter of political survival.

At the time, Syria seemed to be a relatively simple case of a moderate number of poorly trained/equipped and unorganized opposition members getting routed by a more powerful and tightly-run authoritarian state. Since that blog post, several new internal and external factors have surfaced. Now, the picture is a bit messier, with factors inside and outside Syria imposing heavier constraints and pressures on the Assad government. Because of this, I'd like to take a closer look at Syria.

Let's first explore the changes in Syria's external environment, starting with the West's reactions. Of course, the U.S., Canada and the EU have called for Assad to step down and have applied sanctions on Syria, targeting its financial sector, media outlets, research centers, and various leadership figures (including the Ministers of Finance and the Economy, as well as army officers). And after the EU slapped sanctions on Syria's oil sector, including the state-owned General Petroleum Corporation (GPC) and Syria Trading Oil (Sytrol), French oil company Total and Royal Dutch Shell shut down operations.

Last Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Syrian opposition activists, including Burhan Ghalioun, the political opposition leader, in Geneva, Switzerland, to grant American support for their effort to overthrow Assad. Also on Tuesday Washington declared that Ambassador Robert Ford will return to Damascus to resume work trying to lend American support to the Syrian people, especially the protesters and activists. If you recall, amid growing security concerns, Ford was called back to the States last month.

Syria's neighbors have also responded quickly and harshly against the violence inside the country. In a surprise move, Turkey has turned on Syria, its former friend. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for Assad to stop the violence and step down from power. Moreover, Turkey, like the West, has placed an array of sanctions on Syria, such as suspending a trade pact, halting financial credit dealings with Syria, and freezing Syrian government assets.  And "Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz announced that Ankara had shelved plans for Turkey's TPAO petroleum company to explore oil with Syria's state oil company." Even more troubling to Syria, Turkey is now hosting members of the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition. And at the urging of France and Turkey, there's a push for setting up humanitarian corridors inside of Syria so people can keep safe and get access to aid. But so far both the EU and NATO haven't endorsed the idea.

The Arab League has also come down hard on Syria. It suspended Syria's membership and placed a number of sanctions on Syria. The AL froze the assets of and imposed a travel ban on 19 Syrian officials, including cabinet ministers, intelligence chiefs and security officers (though not Assad). Other sanctions include cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank, ceasing funding for projects in Syria, and freezing Syrian government assets. Flights between Syria and its Arab neighbors will stop next Thursday. The AL also agreed to a weapons ban on Syria.

The internal dynamics have also significantly changed in the last several weeks. The Syrian opposition gradually, albeit slowly, is organizing itself politically, with dual councils based in Turkey and in Syria. Moreover, the opposition, led by army defectors, have formed the Syrian Free Army with the intent of overthrowing Assad and protecting Syrian citizens. Opposition sources say that the SFA membership numbers between 10,000 and 20,000. The SFA has begun launching attacks against military installations (intelligence base, convoys, etc.), thereby escalating the conflict further and making it even bloodier. In fact, these developments led Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to state that Syria is now engulfed in a civil war.

Just as important, at a late November meeting in Turkey, the Free Syrian Army met with the civilian opposition Syrian National Council, the main political opposition group, and both sides agreed to coordinate their efforts to overthrow Assad's government. According to a SNC spokesman, "The council recognised the Free Syrian Army as a reality, while the army recognised the council as the political representative." At the SNC's insistence, the Free Syrian Army promised to use force only to protect civilians, "but not take on offensive actions against the army." (This will be interesting to see how this plays out. Colonel Asaad, head of the SFA, has called for foreign air strikes on "strategic targets" in Syria and logistical support from the international community.)

What should we make of what's happening in Syria? First, Assad is completely discredited by his ridiculous and preposterous propaganda. Few, if any, countries believe Assad's conspiracy theories of secret foreign plots against the Syrian state. And they don't buy that the state-sponsored violence is justified or limited. Or that he's merely defending Syrian sovereignty. Equally dubious is his recent claim that "[m]ost of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa." Assad even went so far as to state that he doesn't really control Syria's security forces. And I'm sure very few believe his promises of democratic reform or that he'll sincerely negotiate in good faith with the opposition.

Second, Assad is increasingly isolated. His support for violence against anti-government protesters and activists has created a loose coalition of countries--both East and West--against Syria, creating unprecedented pressure on his administration and the entire political regime.

But despite all of this, it doesn't look like Assad is going anywhere for quite some time. He seems to think he can brutalize and outlast the opposition. Sure, ego and a lust for power, apparently almost natural traits of repressive authoritarian leaders, play a strong role in his calculations. But just as important is the fact that Assad still has some tools he can wield to sustain himself and the state longer than optimists like Fareed Zakaria think.

For instance, Syria receives diplomatic cover from China and Russia, both of which routinely block UN statements and resolutions on its behalf. It has Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas for funding and military assistance. Syria is able to take advantage of Lebanon's permeable borders and sympathetic political elites to smuggle goods and money, thereby maneuvering around the sanctions and offsetting their impact. The Shabiha, or thugs, as the loyalist forces are known--the most important linchpin in quelling the unrest--hasn't cracked is still out in force doing Assad's bidding. In addition, as revenge against Turkey breaking ranks, Assad is now using the Kurdish card. He has reformed ties with the much-despised PKK, allowing the group to set up shop in Syria, from which it can conveniently make life difficult for the Turkish leadership.

On top of all this, the U.S. and NATO really don't want to get significantly involved in a Syrian conflict. Both clearly see Syria as a much different and trickier case than Libya, one fraught with grave dangers and high costs. As a result, the West won't seek to replicate the "Responsibility to Protect" model of foreign policy in Syria, even though thousands, perhaps millions, of Syrians face threats from the state. Moreover, Turkey doesn't want to scuffle with Iran, Syria's sponsor and likely defender, and Iran's auxiliary organizations. And the Middle East has likely gone about as far as it will go in punishing Syria.

With this in mind, then, the sad truth is that as long as Assad can partially minimize the number of refugees fleeing the country and the number of casualties and deaths, Syria won't face much additional external pressure to change course. That leaves the opposition, mostly alone, to fight against a much stronger Syrian state. Hence, Assad probably will win this fight, though things could change, depending on how much and how fast the opposition can cohere and strengthen its military capabilities.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The End of Putin?

While electoral manipulation is not uncommon in Russia, such manipulation generally does not attract much attention, as it usually does little to change the overall results. Putin has long been very popular among Russians and thus never needed to rig elections, unlike other autocrats/dictators around the world. And he faced little resistance from political elites, many of whom were aligned in one way or another with Putin, as long as they were happily climbing his coattails.

Until this week.

In spite of massive electoral manipulations, Putin's party, United Russia, received its worst showing in years, winning only 53% of the electorate, down from 70% -- and analysts believe that without fraud, the number would have been much lower.

So what happened?

First, I think there's an "exhaustion factor," that Putin, having ruled since 2000, had overstayed his welcome. It was one thing to become prime minister, so Russia could have a "transition period" between his regime and the next one, but it is another thing to make a blatant power grab--that is, his plan to become once again the Russian president--that even President Medvedev was caught off guard.

The Russians have a great capacity to tolerate bad incumbents in the Kremlin. Back in the 1990s, they tolerated Yeltsin and even reelected him, for the alternative was either the return of the Communists or the uncertain rise of Fascism under Vladimir Zhirinovsky. As a result, the people reelected Yeltsin with a comfortable margin.

The logic was that even though we keep the bum, at least we got the bum that we know, not the bum who would bring great risk.

Putin rose to power with great popular support. Russians were tired of the lethargic old leaders, who seemed to be more often drunk than sober, and Putin was a very energetic, young athletic guy who brought the promise of jolting Russia out of its slumber.

The 2011 parliamentary results were less about Putin's achievements than the desire to keep moving forward, ending the endless "Groundhog Day" of corruption and fraud. Seeing that Putin's party, United Russia, was again on the ballot, people simply revolted.

Still, could Russia really kick Putin out? Could a Russian spring finally thaw Kremlin's endless winters? It's doubtful in the short-run. Even though the opposition now got its figure in Mr. Alexei Navalny, they are not organized well enough and lack a clear agenda except to throw the bums out. Putin is still quite popular and has lots of support within the armed forces, police force, the intelligence (former KGB), and state bureaucracy.

The Arab dictators fell like a bunch of dominoes because they relied on a very small segment of society for support (e.g. Gaddafi's mercenaries, Mubarak's army, Ben Ali's party.) Putin, on the other hand, is very careful about maintaining his bases of support and husbanding his resources. Unlike the Arab autocrats who concentrated the wealth on their small retinue and family, Putin made sure to spread his wealth, getting almost everyone on the payroll.

In a long run, however, this may be the beginning of Putin's downfall. Russia's over-reliance on the energy sector means that it is very vulnerable to global economic downturns. When the protests are well organized enough to be sustained and the profit from gas dries out in the next couple of years, the piper finally will have to be paid.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why Attacking An Embassy Is a Horrible Idea

The recent attack on the British Embassy in Tehran was not solely a "spontaneous reaction" by Iranian "students." Rather, it was likely an outgrowth of domestic political disputes between President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. After Ahmadinejad put out signals that he wanted to run again for another term, in express opposition to Khamenei's wish, the relations between both men deteriorated. At this point, Ahmadinejad tried to rally his base among the poorer segments of the society, while Khamenei strengthened his grip on the Basij militia and the Revolutionary guards.

The attack on the British Embassy erupted as Ahmadinejad tried to deal with the fallout of British-sponsored sanctions, and Khamenei and his cliques saw this as an opportunity to strengthen their hold over the radical, anti-West part of Iranian society.

While it is always tempting for governments to send their miscreants to embassies to protest -- or to let their citizens vent their outrage toward another country's bad policies (to make sure that the citizens don't blame the government itself for incompetence)--they usually try to ensure that the attack never goes out of control.

Embassies enable very important diplomatic functions--to facilitate communication between host and foreign countries--and yet are frequently vulnerable to attacks. Foreign countries whose embassies are violated may decide to retaliate, for embassies are considered "sacred," an extension of state sovereignty, and their integrity should not be violated.

Not surprisingly, the recent sacking of the British embassy led to one of the very few occasions when both the Russians and the Chinese agree with the United States and the European Union on Iran: all of them gave statements supportive to the British, providing a diplomatic nightmare for Iran.

The Chinese and Russians may not agree with the crux of British policy-- they fought tooth and nail against toughening sanctions on Iran. Still, they didn't miss a moment to declare their displeasure over the sacking -- they were completely aware that what happened to the British may also be dished at them if things spiral further out of control.

Aside from an international slap-on-the-wrist, there are also strategic reasons why attacking embassies isn't a good idea.

Here's one example. In 1979, while Iran successfully managed to bring down President Carter through the prolonged hostage crisis, it also suffered a simultaneous strategic setback. Saddam Hussein took advantage of the situation by mounting a military invasion of Iran, calculating that Iran, as a pariah nation, would not receive much military or diplomatic support. After Iraq's invasion stalled and Iran in turn invaded Iraq, the Gulf states threw their support behind Iraq, and the U.S. restored its diplomatic relations with Iraq and funded the Iraqi army.

In short, the embassy attack isolated Iran and dried up much of its international goodwill. Not surprisingly, even the Iranian hardliners later came to regret the attack.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Observations from Egypt

November 28, 2011, was a momentous day in Egypt’s history, because Egyptians got to vote freely in national elections. It was also a historic day in my voting history: for the very first time in my life I got to vote in an Egyptian parliamentary election. This was the first of three planned stages of parliamentary elections; and it included 9 governorates, including the areas of Cairo, Alexandria, Assuit and Fayoum. (Officially, the parliamentary elections will be completed in January 2012.)

My voting station was the same station I got to vote back in March during the constitutional referendum. It was at El Kawmeyya School in the 6th district of Kasr El Neel, in the neighborhood of Zamalek, Cairo. This time I did not only go as a voter, but I got to participate as an observer. What is most interesting about my voting station is that it was characterized as having one of the longest lines in Cairo and having mostly women voters.

Inside the voting station, the process begins in manner pretty similar to the U.S., in that voters get their names checked off a list after showing their Egyptian national ID as a proof of identity. Voters are then given two voting cards, a pink card for the party list and a huge white voting card for the individual candidates. For the party list, voters got to select from a mixture of 10 parties or political blocks. While for the individual list, one got to pick 2 out of 67 individual candidates. Interestingly, each of the individual candidates or political parties was represented by different symbol, such as a pyramid, motorcycle, apple or soccer ball, and a number. The symbols and numbers help the illiterate as well as those who don't remember the names of their favored parties or candidates.

The voter then goes behind a curtain to select the candidates. The pink and white voting cards are then folded and placed in two separate boxes. Lastly, voters must dip one finger in purple ink (as opposed to pink ink during the referendum vote). The ink is very hard to get rid of and that is a guarantee that voters do not vote more than once. I still have the ink stuck to my pinky since Monday!

As an observer, the voting process at Al Kawmeyya School went very smoothly and peacefully. I did not notice any major violations. Violence was absent due to a plan that was set up by the Egyptian armed forces, in coordination with the Egyptian security forces, that protected my voting station and other voting stations around Cairo and other governorates. In addition, the neighborhood committee that protected Zamalek during the revolution was present outside the school to control the voter lines and assist/guide the elderly to their appropriate voting booths inside the school.

I was truly impressed to see so much enthusiasm and excitement in the voting process. One of my friends was in tears telling me it was a great feeling for her to vote and she felt that Egypt is moving in the right direction. I also believe this voting experience was a milestone and another step towards democracy in Egypt, despite fears of the Islamists winning a majority in the parliament.

First round voters, including those in my 6th district of Kasr El Neel, will get to cast their ballots again on the short list for the individual candidates during the first week in December. The repeat is most likely to happen for more than 120 candidates in each district. In my district, re-runs will be on December 5 and 6 between Mohamed Abu Hamed (From the Kotla El Masreyya Coalition, a liberal grouping) and Kheidr (Adala & Horreyya party, which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood). Of course, I plan to cast my vote again in hopes that my choice for my district, who is also the choice of the majority of the people I know, wins during the repeat.